Wounded Tigers Prepare For LSU

Columnist Phillip Marshall gives his views on the later stages of the football stages and the start of the basketball campaign.

The wounds run deep for Auburn supporters, Auburn players and Auburn coaches. No one has a decent explanation for why a team with so much at stake could play so badly as the Tigers did in a 31-7 loss to Alabama on Nov. 17.

Not until next season's game at Bryant-Denny Stadium will there be an opportunity to make real amends. But it would be a mistake to write this season off as a failure.

Regardless of what happens at LSU on Saturday, Auburn will at least share its second consecutive West Division championship. If Auburn wins, it will make a second straight trip to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and play in its second consecutive New Year's Day bowl. Such a thought would have been laughable when Tommy Tuberville and his staff arrived in November 1999 to take over a program lacking in spirit and talent.

A prediction: Auburn will play one of its better games of the season in hostile Tiger Stadium on Saturday night and will win if it avoids costly turnovers.

The history of Tuberville and his staff say they come back strongly after five games. It also says they usually beat LSU. At Ole Miss and Auburn, Tuberville is 4-2 against LSU. He made his first big statement as Auburn's head coach when his first Tiger team went to Baton Rouge and crushed the Bayou Bengals 41-7.

Should Auburn win again, this season would have to be viewed as an overall success, despite the loss to Alabama. The Tigers were picked last in the West in many preseason polls and rarely higher than fifth. That having been said, there are still questions that need to be answered.

*Why is the defense so woefully inconsistent? Against Florida and Georgia, probably the two best teams Auburn has played, the defense was terrific. The results were a stunning upset of Florida and a victory over Georgia on the road. But when the defense is bad, it is awful. Against Louisiana Tech, Arkansas and Alabama, the Tigers seemed all but helpless, especially in the second halves of those games.

*Where is the passing game? Auburn plays one of the nation's worst pass defenses Saturday at LSU. It played one of the nation's worst pass defenses when Alabama came to town. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is best known for the passing game. He loves to throw the ball. With tailback Carnell Williams gone, there will probably be little choice but to air it out in Baton Rouge.

*What has happened to Damon Duval? Duval was widely viewed as he nation's best kicker after making game-winners against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Florida. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit went so far as to say he might be the best kicker in the history of college football. He's made just two of his last six.

That Tuberville has Auburn's program headed in the right direction is beyond dispute, regardless of what happens the rest of this season. The talent level has improved dramatically during his tenure, and another strong recruiting year appears imminent. Part of the inconsistency is because of the number of young players in the lineup.

Take it from senior defensive end James Callier: "When these young kids grow up, these guys are going to be something special," Callier says.

Auburn fans could at least find some comfort over the weekend in seeing others share their misery. Colorado made Nebraska look like a second-rate team, running around and through the proud Cornhusker defense for an amazing 62 points. Oklahoma, dreaming of a second straight national championship, lost at home to a really bad Oklahoma State team. Michigan, playing for a share of the Big Ten championship, fell apart against underdog Ohio State.

Whether Auburn or LSU goes to Atlanta, a team with much for which to play will be waiting. If Florida beats Tennessee on Saturday, the Gators will need only to win the SEC Championship Game to punch their ticket to Pasadena for the national championship game. If Tennessee wins, it also could be playing for a trip to Pasadena.


BOWL BUSINESS

Though there is some confusion in the bowl picture, Auburn's situation appears reasonably clear. SEC policy says the loser of the championship game must be invited to the Citrus, Outback or Cotton. With South Carolina apparently a lock for the Citrus, a win would send the Tigers to the Outback or Cotton. A loss would probably mean a trip to the Music City Bowl or Independence Bowl, with the Peach Bowl as an outside possibility. A win in the championship game would mean, of course, a trip to the Sugar Bowl.


BASKETBALL STRUGGLES

If point guard Jamison Brewer had not left early for the NBA, Auburn would probably be an SEC championship contender. Without him, the Tigers look more like an NIT team.

The starting point guard, for now, is freshman Dwayne Mitchell. He was a big-time recruit out of New Orleans, but he is playing point guard for the first time. Marquis Daniels is getting some time at point guard, but it's not his natural position. The imminent return of Lincoln Glass will help, but it seems unlikely he can lift this team to a championship level. With six newcomers in the playing rotation, the Tigers will certainly improve as the season goes along. They are as talented as any Auburn team in recent years, but it might take a year for things to come together.


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